From the Los Angeles Times:
The Bush administration announced its “conscience protection” rule for the healthcare industry Thursday, giving doctors, hospitals, and even receptionists and volunteers in medical experiments the right to refuse to participate in medical care they find morally objectionable.
“This rule protects the right of medical providers to care for their patients in accord with their conscience,” said outgoing Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt.
The right-to-refuse rule includes abortion and other aspects of healthcare where moral concerns could arise, Leavitt’s office said, such as birth control, emergency contraception, in vitro fertilization, stem cell research and assisted suicide.
The rule, to be published today in the Federal Register, takes effect the day before President Bush leaves office.
It sets the stage for conflict in Barack Obama’s incoming administration. In August, Obama criticized the rule proposal and said he was “committed to ensuring that the health and reproductive rights of women are protected.”
The rule says providers — including hospitals, clinics, universities, pharmacies and doctor’s offices — can be charged with discrimination if an employee is pressured to participate in care that is “contrary to their religious beliefs or moral convictions.” Violators would lose their federal funds.
Critics of the rule said it was too broad and threatened the rights of patients.
They said they were particularly worried that patients would not be given full and complete information about their medical options. For example, they said, an antiabortion doctor in a federally funded clinic might refuse to tell a pregnant patient that her fetus had a severe abnormality. Or an emergency room worker might withhold from rape victims information about emergency contraception.
The Obama administration could revise the rule after he takes office Jan. 20, but the process would probably be months long.
A speedier option would be a congressional resolution rejecting the Bush administration’s late rules. Democratic Reps. Louise M. Slaughter of New York and Diana DeGette of Colorado said Thursday that they would lead such an effort.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Christian Medical Assn. and Americans United for Life praised the new rules.
Abortion-rights lawyers agreed that no doctor could be required to perform abortions, but they said Health and Human Services should require doctors and medical clinics either to give patients full medical information or to refer patients to someone who does.
From The Washington Post:
Critics began consulting with the incoming Obama administration on strategies to reverse the regulation as quickly as possible while supporters started mobilizing to fight such efforts.
[The rule] was sought by conservative groups, abortion opponents and others to safeguard workers from being fired, disciplined or penalized in other ways.
But women’s health advocates, family planning proponents, abortion rights activists and some members of Congress condemned the regulation, saying it will be a major obstacle to providing many health services, including abortion, family planning, infertility treatment, and end-of-life care, as well as possibly a wide range of scientific research.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) introduced a bill last month to repeal the rule, said: “We will not allow this rule to stand. It threatens the health and well-being of women and the rights of patients across the country.” Similar legislation is pending in the House.
Donna Crane, policy director for NARAL Pro-Choice America, noted that Congress has a limited window to act. “Right now our efforts are focused on the executive branch.”
The regulation’s supporters, including some members of Congress, vowed to defend it.
“We will marshal a nonpartisan, grass-roots coalition to prevent any weakening of current conscience protections,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a socially conservative group that opposes abortion.
David Stevens of the Christian Medical Association said: “We will do all in our power to ensure that health-care professionals have the same civil rights enjoyed by all Americans. These regulations are needed, do not change the law but simply stop religious discrimination.”
The rule, which will cost more than $44 million to implement, gives more than 584,000 health-care organizations until Oct. 1 to provide written certification of their compliance. Those that do not comply face having their funding cut off or being required to return funding they have received.
Officials at hospitals and clinics predicted the regulation will cause widespread disruptions, forcing family planning centers and fertility clinics, for example, to hire employees even if they oppose abortions or in vitro fertilization procedures that can destroy embryos.
Leavitt initially said the regulation was intended primarily to protect workers who object to abortion. The final rule, however, affects a far broader array of services, protecting workers who do not wish to dispense birth control pills, Plan B emergency contraceptives and other forms of contraception they consider equivalent to abortion, or to inform patients where they might obtain such care. The rule could also protect workers who object to certain types of end-of-life care or to withdrawing care, or even perhaps providing care to unmarried people or gay men and lesbians.
While primarily aimed at doctors and nurses, it offers protection to anyone with a “reasonable” connection to objectionable care — including ultrasound technicians, nurses aides, secretaries and even janitors who might have to clean equipment used in procedures they deem objectionable.
From the Chicago Tribune:
The American Medical Association, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the American Hospital Association had opposed the measure along with pro-abortion groups.
“Under the guise of protecting religious freedom, this clause now serves as a means for medical professionals to opt out of providing essential reproductive health-care services and medications,” said Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, in a statement. “It will be the poor and powerless who will be most affected by this draconian measure.”
The Bush administration acknowledged that existing laws already provide protections but argued that the new rule was needed to “raise awareness of federal conscience protections and provide for their enforcement,” according to the Associated Press.